Personal Statements – The Basics

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

How to write a personal statement

Craft a narrative. This should clearly tell your story and make the reader want to know more about you. After all the numbers and grades are in, this is what may separate you out more than any other part of your application. This is a large part of deciding whether to invite you for an interview.

What do I write about?

Pick 2-3 main stories that clearly show why you decided to apply to medical school. This shouldn’t look like a list in paragraph form, this should be a creative (truthful) writing piece. You can start out writing an honest, stream-of-consciousness piece until you run out of ideas. Don’t worry about the length or how many stories you tell. After you’ve done that, you can spend time sorting through what you’ve written and pick out the stories and points you want to highlight in your first real draft.

Create an outline including the stories you want to tell, how you’ll relate them to your decision to pursue medicine, and a conclusion that ties it all together. For every story ask yourself these questions: “Why am I telling them this? What do I want them to understand about me? How does this relate to my decision to pursue medical school?” Every word that doesn’t relate back to these main questions should be removed.

What to avoid: Try to avoid boring phrases that anyone else could write: “I learned that physicians need to be compassionate” or “I learned empathy.” Avoid cliches: “I knew at that moment that I needed to become a physician.” Avoid bragging: “I realized that I am good at making people feel better.” Avoid overdoing it: “I beheld the dark, rippling blood spilling over the wounded lad’s skull.” Avoid medical acronyms that only someone in the field would know: “I infused FFP and monitored the PT.”

After writing your first few drafts, go through every sentence and ask yourself: “Could anyone else have written this or is it unique to my journey? Does it sound generic or cliched? Does this sentence help answer the prompt?” Change or remove every sentence that does not fit the correct answer to those questions.

Consider who is reading this. The first person to read your personal statement will not likely be a physician. It will probably be a staff member at the admissions committee who might be a Ph.D., MD, DO, MS, MBA or another faculty. It might even be the admissions staff who have been hired just for advisement and admissions and holds none of the degrees listed above. Write to a broad audience. Talking about the details of your research in the periventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus of JAX female mice will not grab the attention of most audiences.

Consider when someone might read this. Yours might be the last application reviewed that day and everyone is a little bit tired and less careful. Make it engaging. Not weird, not funny, make it passionate and real.

How long should it be? 5300 characters for AMCAS. 5000 characters for TMDSAS. 4500 for AACOMAS.

Grammar: get this thing read and re-written so many times that it looks nothing like your first draft by the time you turn it in. No spelling errors and no comma or period errors. A previous admissions committee member for University of Washington School of Medicine said “when it came down to three applicants who all had similar scores and great activities, I might find a spelling or grammatical error and say ‘well, they didn’t care enough to get that detail right, I’ve got to decide somehow…’ and I tossed that application out.” So get this right. If you submit and find a mistake, later on, don’t freak out, not everyone will notice or care that much about it.

Can I write about an experience if I’ve already written about it in the 15 activities section? Yes. But don’t tell the same story twice. If you have to do this, make it a completely different story with different lessons learned. Don’t waste their time telling the same thing twice.

What separates a good personal statement from a great one? Great personal statements tell stories. They convince the admissions committee that the applicant is sincere and interesting enough to invite for an interview. It’s easy to write something that sounds generic. Make the stories personal and avoid bragging. Show the admissions committee who you are, don’t tell them.

I’ve read and reviewed many, many personal statements and have been doing so for a couple of years. If you’d like me to perform a review of your personal statement, learn more here.

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